A Kind of Loving

Nick Pinkerton on Antonio Pietrangeli at MoMA

Antonio Pietrangeli, I Knew Her Well, 1965. 35 mm, black and white, sound, 99 minutes.

ANY OVERVIEW of the career of Antonio Pietrangeli has to ask what might have been, for the Italian director died prematurely, very much in his prime, and before he could cement his legacy. The last feature that he lived to see to completion, I Knew Her Well (1965), was his most popular and remains among his best-regarded, a bittersweet comedy-drama starring Stefania Sandrelli as a teenaged provincial proletariat freshly arrived in Rome, oblivious as showbiz vampires feed off of her youth and beauty, tossing her a few nugatory, ultimately unsustaining rewards in return.

Unlike, say, Jean Eustache, Pasolini, or Fassbinder, whose oeuvres seem to anticipate and even be completed by their self-prophesied ends, Pietrangeli’s exit from the mortal coil was unplanned, tragic, and slightly absurd. In the summer of 1968, during a break in shooting on his Come, quando, perché (How, When, and with Whom), he went for a swim in the sea near Gaeta, and drowned after waves dashed him against a rocky outcropping. He was then forty-nine years old. As the notes for a 2013 retrospective at the Austrian Film Museum note, this was “a death scene that could have appeared in one of his films,” for Pietrangeli had established himself as the master of a particularly melancholic strain of the Commedia all’italiana genre, which provided a comic perspective on relations among the classes, between town and country, and (especially important for Pietrangeli) between men and women in the “Il Boom” years of Italy’s dizzying modernization.

The resuscitation of Pietrangeli’s reputation now continues with a retrospective—ten features and his contribution to the 1966 omnibus film Le Fate—at the Museum of Modern Art, who some years back did a similar service for the great Dino Risi. Viewed together, Pietrangeli’s films show a remarkable consistency of vision and thematic preoccupations. In his directorial debut, 1953’s Il Sole negli occhi (Empty Eyes), we find the same basic plot outline that would appear in I Knew Her Well a dozen years later: A young woman from a rural background—in this case Irene Galter—arrives in the big city to seek new opportunities, only to find that her gender and class background leave her vulnerable to exploitation from all sides.

Born in Rome, Pietrangeli had abandoned his early study of medicine and turned instead to cinema, where he would go on to deliver acute diagnoses of his country’s psychopathologies. Starting out as a critic, he contributed to the journals Bianco & Nero and Cinema, the latter an incubator for filmmakers-to-be including Carlo Lizzani, Gianni Puccini, Giuseppe de Santis, and Luchino Visconti. Along with Pietrangeli, who contributed to the scripts of Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1948) and Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51 (1952), these Cinema journalists would contribute in ways large and small to the cycle of postwar Italian films grouped together under the media-friendly name of Neorealism. (Like the French New Wavers to come, these ex-journos knew the power of branding.)

Empty Eyes, in which Galter plays a naive domestic bounced from home to home while being strung along and finally seduced and abandoned by a feckless, charming plumber (Gabriele Ferzetti, a regular collaborator of Pietrangeli’s who died only this Wednesday), belongs to the Indian summer of Neorealism, though Pietrangeli’s future output would respond to new developments in Italian cinema and society, all while retaining the same wistful irony. Lo Scapolo (The Bachelor, 1955), starring Alberto Sorti, is an early Commedia all’italiana effort, while Souvenir d’Italie (It Happened in Rome, 1957), accompanying three young women on an Italian tour, is a light, colorful, commercial travelogue that incidentally offers a satirical view of a tourist industry catering to a lust for authenticity—no less a personage than Vittorio de Sica has a small role as a nobleman who’s taken to renting rooms in his Venetian villa.

Like contemporaries Risi and Pietro Germi, Pietrangeli’s films dealt with the tragicomic mess wrought by Italian machismo, in all of its fragile pride, galloping hypocrisy, and socially sanctioned power. Rather uniquely, however, Pietrangeli preferred to filter his stories through the perspective of female characters—Galter’s betrayed innocent, the trio of liberated vacationers in It Happened in Rome, or disillusioned Francesca (Jacqueline Sassard), who narrates the events of Nata di marzo (March’s Child, 1958), recounting the story of her broken marriage to a thirtysomething architect (Ferzetti), from her decision to drop out of university to their gradual bust-up, as honeymoon and domestic harmony turns to bitter recrimination. (The script, whose contributors include Pietrangeli and director-to-be Ettore Scola, is a painfully incisive portrait of a relationship in nosedive free fall, full of stinging jibes: “You’re so banal sometimes it leaves me speechless.”)

Antonio Pietrangeli, La Visita, 1964. 35 mm, black and white, sound, 100 minutes.

Pietrangeli never reduced his female characters by enlarging them into idealized icons; his women could be vain, petty, calculating, and bullheaded, which is to say human. He presided nevertheless over several scenes of touching feminine solidarity, from the coda that concludes Empty Eyes, in which a group of housemaids gather in support of one of their own, to the extraordinary Adua and Her Friends. Released in 1960, Adua is set in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the 1958 Merlin Law, which effectively closed down Italy’s brothels. The title character (Simone Signoret) takes the lead of a cohort of newly out-of-work working girls, including Emmanuelle Riva, encouraging them to try a new business model—a restaurant in the Roman suburbs that offers boudoir service on the side—until the unexpected pride that comes with running a legitimate, successful small business has them reconsidering going back into the world’s oldest profession. Sex and economics are also inextricable in La Visita (The Visit, 1963), in which a Roman bookseller (François Périer) travels to a village in the Po Valley to meet a voluptuous thirty-six-year-old bachelorette (Sandra Milo) with whom he has been exchanging letters, though his interest seems mostly to be in her dowry and the teenage granddaughter of her housekeeper. Périer’s toothbrush-mustached “Adolfo,” who flashes the Roman salute when in his cups, is the very portrait of a would-be petty domestic tyrant, the dynamic of his barely-suppressed nastiness and Milo’s doe-eyed eagerness suggesting a Commedia all’italiana version of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), though the film’s resolution has a plaintiveness that is purely Pietrangeli.

Pietrangeli’s comedies are distinguished by their undercurrent of wry pity and their remarkable acuity in both psychology and setting. No less than Visconti, though for the most part working in very different milieus, Pietrangeli’s films show a great sensitivity to the way in which people, unconsciously obeisant to internalized behavioral codes, move in and between private and public spaces. Pietrangeli was an unobtrusive stylist who borrowed very selectively from modernist screen language, preferring shrewdly timed close-up accents and casual unbroken sequence shots that recall Preston Strurges. Rather than bravura showmanship, his best moments exemplify finely calibrated qualities of tone: the suburban dance hall on a Sunday afternoon in Empty Eyes, the domestic squabble put on pause for the priest’s Easter visit in March’s Child, or two nuns at a railway station breaking into a conspiratorial giggle while watching Milo primp and prepare herself in The Visit. MoMA’s program gives much cause to regret the brevity of his life, and much evidence that he was a gifted satirical chronicler of the time and place in which he did live: a new Italy, torn between the musty leather-bound Bible and the glossy catalog.

“Antonio Pietrangeli: A Retrospective” runs December 3–18 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.